Survival of the well-read

27th October 1995 at 00:00
The Effective Teacher, by Cedric Cullingford (Cassell #163;13.99)

An Introduction to Teaching, edited by Charles Desforges (Blackwell hardback #163;45 paperback #163;13.99)

Primary School People, edited by Jean Mills and Richard W Mills (Routledge #163;9.99)

Beginning Teaching Beginning Learning, edited by Janet Moyles (Open University Press #163;10.99)

New Teacher's Survival Guide, by Marilyn Nathan (Kogan Page #163;10.99)

Learning to Teach in the Secondary School, by Susan Capel, Marilyn Leask and Tony Turner (Routledge #163;12.99)

I remember so much of my own first year as a teacher. The class was demanding and I had some sleepless nights which were not helped by the fact that I was playing drums in a band at the time, as well as grappling with the plumbing in our rented house during that appalling winter of 1961-2.

I did go on some courses - one, I recall, explained how Cuisenaire Rods would revolutionise the teaching of mathematics. But did I sit down and read books about teaching? I think not - and therein lies the basic problem for the many experienced educators who, in this new age of mentoring and school-based induction, are writing books for beginning teachers.

Of course, teaching is not something you can learn from a book, but this is not to deny that books for teachers are useful. You cannot learn driving from a book either, and yet the police drivers' manual Roadcraft is a straightforward read that would save lives were all motorists to study it. One problem is that authors often forget that they are writing for busy, weary people who do not want convoluted paragraphs and superfluous academic reinforcement of arguments. Cedric Cullingford, in his introduction to The Effective Teacher recognises this. "It is not always the fault of teachers if they do not read, given some of the material presented to them."

Professor Cullingford's book - a warm, wise and witty volume, that covers every area of classroom life - is the pedagogic equivalent of Roadcraft. Although it is soundly based on research, not only is it devoid of footnotes and sparing with references, but it is a model of how to carve a mountain of academic wisdom into polished lumps of straightforward advice which add up to much more than "tips for teachers". Take this no-nonsense introduction to a discussion of classroom styles for example, "There are always three possibilities in teaching: working with the class as a whole; working with groups; and working with individuals. Relying on just one technique never works." He will win applause, too, for what he says in his preface. "The greatest intellectual challenge lies in the infant school. The fundamental problem of any education system is that people do not wish to acknowledge that fact."

Cedric Cullingford, incidentally, proves that he knows about the inner feelings of teachers by recognising the recurrent dream, shared by all of us, of the out-of-control class. (I still have this dream, despite the fact that it is 35 years since I started teaching, and six since I retired from headship. But then, like all former National Servicemen, I also dream of being back in the army.) We could all learn, also, from An Introduction to Teaching although we might have to work a little harder at it. Edited by another professor of education - Charles Desforges of the School of Education at Exeter - it presents papers, described as "Psychological Perspectives", by a dozen or so academic writers. Like Cedric Cullingford, Professor Desforges puts some excellent cards on the table early on, "The major objective of school teaching is to help children learn. This might seem rather obvious, but the fact is that some people - including many teachers - appear readily to forget it . . . children can be kept very busy, but unless learning is a deliberate focus for their activity it will not occur, or it will occur only incidentally."

The individual chapters cover a wide range of teaching and learning. Geoffrey Brown's first chapter, "What is Involved in Learning" is easy-to-understand psychology, while Phil Bayliss, in "Teaching for Diversity" looks in detail at the challenge of meeting the widely varying needs of pupils. Like Cedric Cullingford's the book has much that can help teachers of any level of experience. However, as my dad used to say, "It takes a bit of reading" - not because of any deficiency of style but because it is closely argued and demands attention. For that reason it seems more likely to be used as a course text than as a fireside companion.In this regard, course leaders will welcome the fact that Charles Desforges offers, at regular intervals, an "Editor's Overview" and an "Editor's Commentary", the latter including ideas for school-based work.

Both Primary School People, edited by Jean and Richard Mills, and Beginning Teaching: Beginning Learning, edited by Janet Moyles, have jolly child paintings on their covers - a reminder, perhaps, of the child-centred primary approach. Janet Moyles, indeed, begins her book with a substantial chapter by Maurice Galton that explores the myths and realities of classroom styles - whole-class teaching, group work, individual work. This is a masterly exercise in clarifying the miasma of misunderstanding, mis-applied "common sense" and deliberate political misrepresentation that surrounds this issue. Incidentally, Maurice Galton calls his chapter "Do you really want to cope with thirty lively children?" thus tempting the response, "Yes please, because at the moment I have 40".

Many of the other chapters give direct practical advice (though well underpinned by theory) about what to do in the classroom. "A story in your head," for example, by Jane Hislam, is a call for teachers to pay attention to the much neglected craft of story-telling, while "Keeping Track" by Morag Hunter-Carsch is a guide, copiously supported by facsimile records, to classroom assessment. Jean Mills and Richard W Mills take as their starting point the teacher who said "I was surprised by the number of people who came into my classroom in the course of the day. I wasn't quite sure what my position was in relation to theirs. This had to be negotiated quickly." Thus the introductory chapter has a list of the teaching and support staff in a large primary school, together with their responsibilities, and goes on to point out the number of questions that a new teacher may want to ask about it. As a method of describing the realities of school life, this is astonishingly practical, and yet it creates plenty of space for the discussion of fundamental issues - the section by Gill Hackett and Chris Rush on "The Post Holder", for example,covers teamwork, leadership, development plans and classroom organisation,to say nothing of the various ways by which post holders actually do the job. Similarly, the description of a school secretary's work, by Richard Mills, inevitably involves a sideways look at the quality of relationships and school ethos.

In the books mentioned so far, the emphasis has been on primary schooling.Cedric Cullingford, in fact, although his title encompasses all phases of education, assumes that he is speaking chiefly to primary teachers "since it is in the younger age range that the greatest complexities lie".

Marilyn Nathan, however, is deputy head of a secondary school, and her New Teacher's Survival Guide naturally adopts a secondary perspective. Thus her list of questions that the new teacher needs to ask includes "Will I have to be a form tutor?" This is very much a nuts and bolts book. There are lots of case studies - the girl who opens a window wide so the wind entirely disrupts the lesson; the teacher whose classes emerge rowdily and late from the room; the role play lesson that degenerates into chaos; the boy who angrily pushes his work away and runs from the room. (All of these have happened to me, and I'll probably have that dream again now.) This is a practical book by a practical teacher, but the relevant research is quoted, and there is nothing to which a theorist could take exception. The emphasis is always on learning outcomes, and there is good advice on matching work to pupil needs. It is small enough to read on the bus, too.

Learning to Teach in the Secondary School by Susan Capel, Marilyn Leask and Tony Turner is probably a bit heavy (in both senses) for reading on the bus. More a text for teacher education than a self-help manual, it would nevertheless find a useful place on the shelf of a senior teacher with mentoring responsibilities.

The heartening thing about these books is that they are positive - they all start from the assumption that teaching is a worthwhile and enjoyable thing to do. How right they are to do that. In September 1961, I walked down the corridor at Lyndon Green Junior in Birmingham to meet my first class and found them lined up outside the door. At the front was a small boy called Christopher. "Are you Mr Haigh?" he asked, and when I confirmed that I was, he grinned and said, "We're in your class then!" It was a deeply affecting affirmation of my new status, and the beginning of a long but always fascinating and often privileged road.

To those who are just starting out I commend the words of Cedric Cullingford. "Doing a really good job is challenging: hard work and rewarding. It is possible to coast; just to keep going. Somewhere between the miraculous, the counsel of perfect virtue, and the routine, we will find our way."

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